Multilingualism and Segregation


When we decide on our language policy, in which generation’s interest are we focusing on?

We are often proud that Malaysia is a multilingual country where a few languages are widely used. We like to see this diversity as an asset to our country, and in some cases this view is generally well-supported. At the same time we shall be reminded of the downsides of multilingualism in our country. These are things that we already know, but rarely think of.

Like it or not, many of us are not that fluent in our second or third language as we are in our first language. (I use “first language” to refer to the language one is most fluent in, regardless of whether that is the first language someone is exposed to.) As a result, there is going to be some level of social segregation along the lines of first language. This is potentially different from segregation along the lines of ethnicity, as there could be different languages or dialects even within the same ethnic group.

Social segregation is inevitably linked to segregation in the economy. The idea is that if you are in a particular first language group, you tend to trade with those in the same group, potentially missing out on better deals elsewhere. That could be inefficient from an economic point of view. Besides, if your market is restricted to those in the same group, you may find it harder to achieve economies of scale, i.e. your market is not large enough for you to produce things more cheaply.

Fortunately, I see that Malaysians are not that parochial and we do trade among different groups. There is an example of an industry that is fragmented precisely because of language segregation: the media. Of course, the media is a relatively small part of the economy, so it doesn’t matter that much.

Now, it seems that many people are willing to tolerate the inefficiencies caused by language segregation. That is not a sign, though, that people are irrational. People most probably value their attachment to their language group. There is also some effort involved if one is going to improve his/her fluency in a more dominant language. People could also see language segregation as merely a by-product of diversity and maybe even enjoy that.

While this is entirely fine in the short run, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should let things stay this way. After all, if future generations are raised in a different language environment, they probably won’t have the same attachment to their parents’ or grandparents’ language group. Perhaps the cost-benefit scale would tip at some point. When we decide on our language policy, in which generation’s interest are we focusing on? This is something worth thinking about.

PS: It should be noted that ethnic segregation can still exist without language segregation. Culture is probably the main contributing factor here.

PPS: Multilingualism has to some extent contributed to our trade with certain countries. This I do not doubt. The question is on whether there should be a common first language in our country.

Kuala Lumpur